Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ()
WASHINGTON — That a controversial bipartisan spending plan would be easier to push through the US Senate than a military policy bill was unthinkable not too long ago. But that has become Washington’s latest bewildering political reality.
Since the onset of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Democratic-run Senate was, for the defense and other sectors, the more predictable congressional body. After all, it was the GOP-controlled House that was more chaotic, with a superconservative Republican wing feuding with its leadership and pushing the nation to the brink of fiscal calamity.
But suddenly, the script has flipped. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are waging a rhetorical and procedural fight over the chamber’s rules and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s handling of Republican amendments.
Reid, a Democratic senator from Nevada, spent last week pushing through a slew of judicial and executive-branch nominees just weeks after he altered the rules to ban filibusters on such nominations. But as the chamber prepares to adjourn Dec. 20 for the holidays, Reid intends to bring up what he on Dec. 13 dubbed “two important bills,” amid an onslaught of Republican anger.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Dec. 12 that GOP members believe Reid and Democratic leaders are “rubbing our noses in” the recent rule change, which allows the majority leader to push through a long list of nominations.
“And now we’re supposed to get cooperation? It’s very, very difficult,” McCain said. “The atmosphere around here is more poisonous here than I’ve ever seen it.”
One of the measures Reid intends to move this week is a House-passed budget and deficit-reduction plan crafted by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The other is a House-approved $607 billion compromise version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
To pass both, Reid must find 60 votes to end floor debate and move to up-or-down votes.
The budget resolution surprised some by easily passing the House on Dec. 12. A few hours before that vote, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Defense News the Ryan-Murray plan is “a good deal for defense.”
Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, agreed. He said “DoD should be ecstatic.”
“They are spared sequester, get budget stability, have all the flexibility they need, and have a holiday stocking stuffer nobody has bothered to mention: $80 billion in overseas contingency funds,” Adams said.
Putting on his political prognosticator cap, Adams predicted “Senate passage is a slam dunk.”
Passing Ryan-Murray could prove more of a mid-range — or deeper — jump shot for Reid, however, and likely with a defender or two in his face. That’s because the budget plan has many skeptics in the Senate — from both political parties.
“I’d like to vote for it,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman (SASC) Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. “A lot of [Democrats] are very much concerned about the unemployment issue. The [unemployment] benefits that are running out, that’s one of the biggest concerns that I have.”
One defense industry lobbyist said last week that the so-called “three amigos” would be key to getting to 60 votes in the Senate.
“In the Senate, I think you get the defense folks: McCain, [Sen. Lindsey] Graham [R-S.C.], [Sen. Kelly] Ayotte [R-N.H.] and some others,” the lobbyist said.
A week later, however, only the lead “amigo,” McCain, supports the deal — and he doesn’t love it.
Graham and Ayotte announced in separate Dec. 12 statements they will oppose the spending and deficit-reduction plan because it proposes changes to military benefits to help lessen pending sequestration cuts.
Ayotte said she “cannot support a budget agreement that fails to deal with the biggest drivers of our debt, but instead pays for more federal spending on the backs of our active duty and military retirees.”
That means Reid’s vote-counting operation will be working overtime as the clock ticks toward the chamber’s holiday adjournment in an eleventh-hour arm-twisting operation to secure 60 votes.
Then there’s the NDAA, sunk by senators in late November amid GOP anger over Reid’s handling of their amendments.
Weeks later, that anger has only intensified — and members of both parties are concerned Republicans will use the defense bill to make a point.
“The mood of Republicans in the Senate is one of anger at a level that I have not seen before. And it’s justified,” McCain said. “It’s disgraceful, this entire situation.”
McCain said he will “do everything I can” to convince his GOP mates to drop any protest attempt when the NDAA hits the floor.
The chamber’s minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans such as Senate Armed Services Committee member Graham said they should be able to offer debate and vote on amendments to the defense bill on the floor.
Asked about the mood in a Dec. 10 GOP lunch meeting about an amendments-free NDAA process, Graham told Defense News, “We all want amendments to the bill.”
McCain and Levin acknowledged the chamber’s bad blood could sink the 2014 version of the NDAA for good.
Levin often tells reporters he is “an optimistic guy.” But last week, he was uncharacteristically tepid in his forecasts about the defense bill’s fate.
“I don’t know,” Levin said when asked if the bill will move quickly through his chamber. “It depends on all the other pieces on the chess board.”
The SASC ranking member, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters, “I’m not going to even let that enter my head,” when asked if the defense bill might be killed over the ongoing amendments fight.
“I feel very confident that ... we’ll pass it next week,” he said Dec. 12.
“I talked to the entire Republican conference about this, and told them what all’s in here — and there’s a lot in this bill. We’ve got ... things that are really important in the bill,” Inhofe said.
One of the problems facing Levin, Inhofe and McCain in shepherding the NDAA to passage is a changed GOP caucus, once staunchly pro-military.
“We have some Republicans who are just anti-defense, not as many as the House now,” Inhofe said candidly. Asked to name names, he said with a laugh: “I’m not about to say.”
Inhofe’s plea to those GOP senators is to view the defense bill as above the amendments fray.
“It’s the one bill that we have to have,” Inhofe told reporters. “It’s the one bill that we have to have to get the resources to our kids who are out fighting battles. So that has to have priority over process.”